The most important steps to becoming a great design leader

4 min read
Will Fanguy
  •  Jun 25, 2018
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Most designers, when presented with a leadership opportunity, leap into the role enthusiastically, unaware of the challenges ahead. That’s what an opportunity is, right? A new, uncharted frontier full of mystery and the just right set of circumstances?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Most opportunities have a higher likelihood of success if you go in prepared and with the right mindset. If you’re the type of designer who reads all of the Amazon reviews before you buy, we’ve got some tips for you on steps you can take to prepare yourself for the transition from designer to design leader.

“You don’t have to go into a new leadership role completely unaware.”

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Learn what you don’t know

There’s three kinds of knowledge: what you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know (still with me?). It’s the latter two types that will jump up and bite you if you’re not prepared.

The good news is that, in most situations, you don’t have to go into a new leadership role completely unaware. First, take the opportunity to get to know your team. Ask them questions both individually and as a group. Try to find out what they think is working, what’s not working, and the areas where they think you should focus. You’re the leader, so you have final say concerning the work that gets done, but I guarantee that you’ll make inroads by simply asking for your team’s inputTwitter Logo.

Next, determine your team’s values. Design is a field with a level of vulnerabilityTwitter Logo that you don’t necessarily find in product management or engineering, so it’s unique when it comes to priorities and procedures. As a design leader, you should work with your team to define the core values that will shape your culture and establish a motivational foundation for the work you do. When there’s buy-in from everybody, teams operate more cohesively.

Finally, know that you’ll never be 100% prepared for everything that comes your way. That’s life. Concern yourself (and your team) with being prepared and optimized for today. You won’t want to get too set in your ways because change is inevitable. But if you’re ready for today and poised to handle the task at hand, you’ll be better equipped to deal with change when it arrises.

“When there’s buy-in from everybody, teams operate more cohesively.”

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Communication is key

Whether your team is colocated in an office or spread remotely around the globe, you have a responsibility as a leader to establish an environment that encourages healthy feedback and collaboration. Design does not happen in a bubble. Establishing dedicated times and places for sharing works-in-progress keeps everyone connected and working together. Get your team in the habit of posting their work for others to see. Feedback comes more naturally when you create the right environment.

In the Design Leadership Handbook, Eli Woolery and Aarron Walter say that “1-on-1 meetings are a great way for managers and their direct reports to connect individually on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and ensure that employees feel like they’re working toward their goals. These are not status update meetings; they’re an opportunity to give regular feedback and foster growth.”

Never underestimate the value of saying “thank you”. As social people, we’ve been trained to expect feedback, and positive reinforcement after a job well done helps motivate a team towards their next successful outcome. The return on investment from showing gratitude and appreciation for your colleagues far outweighs the effort required.

“Never underestimate the value of saying ‘thank you’.”

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The differences between contributing and leading

It’s a cliché, but with increased power comes a new sense of responsibility as well. Everyone has their own unique management style, but there are two key things you’ll want to keep in mind as you transition from being a team player to leading that team.

First, you set the standards for professionalism and work performanceTwitter Logo. If you show up on time, put in a full day’s work, and make clear communication and constructive feedback priorities, your team will likely follow suit. The inverse is true as well, so keep it business-like. Make the job a place where expectations are high and the necessary support is available to achieve greatness.

Speaking of expectations, you set the goals now. All of those KPIs and quarterly benchmarks get your seal of approval before they become official. A word of advice: involve your team as much as possibleTwitter Logo in the setting and tracking of these plans. They’ll feel much more responsible for contributing to the team’s overall success if they played a role in setting the criterion for that success.

Looking for more suggestions and advice on how to get started as a design leader? Check out the Design Leadership Handbook over at!

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard